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Ed Ross | Monday, November 14, 2011

Recent media stories tell of an internal Israeli government debate over attacking Iranís nuclear weapons program as an International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) report says that Iran could soon have its first nuclear weapon. Taking out Iranís dispersed nuclear-weapons-related installationsómany of which are deep undergroundóis a difficult task; and Iranian retaliation on Israel and U.S. forces in the region could set off a destructive and costly war. Nevertheless, military action by Israel and or the United States is rapidly becoming the only option, after sanctions and covert action have failed to do the job.

The preferred option for stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon has been to use diplomacy and sanctions to convince Tehran to ďdo the right thing.Ē From the outset of Barack Obama's presidency, he repeatedly has extended the olive branch to Iran, promising improved relations with the United States and its allies. More recently, as good will gestures have failed, the U.S. has ratcheted up sanctions and U.S. diplomatic efforts to broaden international support for them.

The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) that President Obama signed in 2010 has eroded the value of Iranís currency and made it difficult for Iran to attract foreign investment. But it has done little if anything to slow Iranís quest for nuclear weapons.

Following an Iranian assassinís attempt to kill the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States and blow up embassies in Washington, D.C., the U.S. "urged the international community to join it in implementing financial sanctions to further isolate Iranís regime and pressure it to comply with international demands concerning its nuclear activities." But without Russiaís and Chinaís participation and the credible threat of military force, itís unlikely to have a different result. Sanctions on Iran's central bank might have an impact, but the Obama administration is not yet ready to go that far.

Sanctions, however, have not been the only response to Iranís intransigence. Without access to the most sensitive and highly classified documents in Tel Aviv and Washington, D.C., we canít know for sure what the Israeli and U.S. governments have been up to. Nevertheless, there is sufficient information in the public domain to suggest they havenít been sitting on their hands.

According to the The Daily Telegraph, Israel is ďusing hitmen, sabotage, front companies and double agents to disrupt the (Iranian) regime's illicit weapons project.Ē It implies that Mossad has assassinated several Iranian nuclear scientists, and that Israel infected Iranís uranium enrichment centrifuge control systems with the Stuxnet virus, slowing Iranís enrichment of uranium. The goal has been to delay Iranís program without the direct confrontation that could lead to war until military action is the only option left.

To what extent the U.S. has been covertly cooperating with Israel or acting unilaterally is difficult to assess. Experts point out that the Stuxnet virus is a very sophisticated worm, requiring a government with considerable resources and technology to create and deploy it. Media reports have speculated the Stuxnet attack on Iran was a joint U.S.-Israel operation.

Itís highly unlikely that President Obama would authorized U.S assassins to kill Iranian nuclear scientists; he would have to sign a presidential finding and brief intelligence committee chairman in Congressófacts that are difficult to keep secret. Such operations are better left to the Israelis. Nevertheless, itís not out of the question for Israel to have used U.S.-provided intelligence to target Iranian nuclear scientists or conduct other Israeli covert operations.

Unfortunately, whatever Israel and the U.S. may have done covertly to slow Iranís progress, it also hasnít stopped it. There are a range of overt and covert actions the U.S. and Israel could still take; but time is fast running out, and both governments must act quickly.

President Obama passed up an opportunity to support the Green Revolution in Iran when it rose up to protest the rigged reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He stopped short of efforts to bring about regime change in Iran. He could speak out publically now in support of regime change while providing overt and covert support to Iranian dissidents in Iran and abroad.

Both the U.S. and Israel could take covert action against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force that was behind the assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador. Aggressive cyber, deception, and infiltration operations designed to confuse and disrupt it are difficult and take time to execute; but should a war with Iran come, they could undermine Quds Force capabilities. Itís unclear if a large blast at a Revolutionary Guard base outside Iran on November 12 was sabotage or an accident.

The two governments also could take covert action to sabotage Iranís gasoline refinery. A Stuxnet-type virus or even a covert military operation could halt or greatly reduce gasoline refinement in Iran. That could bring the Iranian economy and perhaps even its weapons programs to a crawl and spark widespread unrest.

None of these or other options, such as the U.S. decision to pre-position bunker-buster precision-guided bombs in the region, by themselves are likely to stop Iranís nuclear weapons program. Together they could greatly delay it while setting in motion forces that would bring about regime change resulting in an Iranian government the U.S. can deal with.

Some have argued that Iranís acquisition of nuclear weapons is inevitable and the U.S. must learn to live with a nuclear Iran. The war that would result from a military attack on Iran, they emphasize, simply is unacceptable when the U.S. is engaged in wars in Afghanistan, Iran, and with al-Qaeda and when the U.S. economy is in such dire shape.

Nevertheless, one fact trumps all. Israel believes a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people it can not tolerate. The internal debate in Israel has not been over whether or not Israel must ultimately take military action against Iranís nuclear weapons program, but whether now is that time. Sooner or later, if combined U.S.-Israeli actions do not bring about regime change or stop Iranís quest for nuclear weapons, Israel will strike Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear weapons state. When that happens, the U.S. will become involved whether it wants to or not.

No one wants a war with Iran, especially Israel which would take the highest casualties from Iranian, Hezbollah, and possibly Syrian military attacks. But if we are to avoid that war the U.S., with whatever allies it can muster, must employ comprehensive and aggressive sanctions and covert action to stop Iran from building its first nuclear weapon. Thereís no more time to waste.


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